Repairing The Word


It was wrinkled, soaked with mud, smelled moldy. For Rabbi Emmanuel Vinas, it was a godsend, "a dream come true for me." The Jewish family life education director at the JCC on the Hudson in Tarrytown is using the 150-year-old sefer Torah heavily damaged in November during flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch as the center of a communitywide learning program.

Rabbi Vinas, a trained scribe, expects to spend at least a year and a half repairing the 3-foot high scroll rescued from the capital of Honduras. Now he is teaching about 10 volunteers to clean the parchment, a first step before he can restore the damaged lettering. During the weekly sessions he conducts informal classes based on a theme found in the words the volunteers are cleaning.

On Feb. 24 he will lead a Torah workshop for adults explaining his scribal activities. Four days later the workshop and an exhibit is for children.

"One of the ways I like to do things is hands-on projects," says Rabbi Vinas, 30, a Riverdale resident who joined the JCC staff four months ago after spending nine years as a social worker in the Bronx.

He has produced a 10-page pamphlet, "It is a Tree of Life " to explain the intricacies of a Torah scroll. "The idea here is to take the Torah from the ark and put it into everybody’s lap," the rabbi says.

Once a week he unrolls the scroll over three long tables in the JCC library. Tarpaulin underneath catches the scraped-off mud.

"When we received the Torah," which was discovered under three feet of mud in the Tegucigalpa synagogue, "it was soaking wet," Rabbi Vinas says on a recent morning. He points to intermittent water stains and barely legible Hebrew letters. "It still isn’t 100 percent dry. You can smell the mold."

The Torah, rendered ritually unfit, would have been buried immediately in Honduras, Rabbi Vinas says, had he not serendipitously heard about the damage.

Philip Gelman, a New York native who is a CARE official and Jewish community president in Tegucigalpa, sent out an e-mail appeal for aid after Mitch struck. The appeal received a worldwide response.

Marvin Rembo, a Westbury, L.I., businessman based in Honduras, forwarded the message to Harry Mueller, a business associate in Connecticut, who showed it to his wife’s parents, Judy and Stephen Underberg, in Hastings-on-Hudson. The Underbergs are JCC volunteers.

"We both said simultaneously, ‘We have a scribe,’ " Judy Underberg recalls. "It was so obvious that this was to be done."

They told Rabbi Vinas about the scroll.

"I wrote [Gelman] a letter in Spanish, saying I’d be happy to work on the sefer Torah," says Rabbi Vinas, a Miami native born to Cuban Jews who came to the United States in 1960 and received his sofrut certification at Yeshiva University.

The scroll’s sojourn to Tarrytown included a six-hour bus ride to the airport in San Pedro Sula, a flight with Rembo in a Continental Airlines overhead luggage bin, and car rides to Long Island and Westchester.

The rabbi, who immerses in a mikveh before doing his sofer work, is fixing the scroll and its wooden Etz Chaim stakes as a volunteer, in addition to his other teaching activities at the JCC.

"What Rabbi Vinas’ work means to us cannot really be described," Gelman says. "The investment of 5,000 hours in a Torah that he would have recommended for burial under other circumstances is testimony to his tremendous sense of humanity."

The 40 families in the Tegucigalpa Jewish community, raising funds to rebuild their synagogue, could not afford to buy a sefer Torah (one other scroll floated away in the flood and was never recovered) to replace the damaged one, Gelman says.

"We would have kept it as a memento of the disaster and displayed it in the new synagogue," he says. "However, when we learned that [Rabbi Vinas] is using the restoration project as a teaching tool … we resolved to let the work continue."

Rabbi Vinas calls the survival of the scroll, which was brought out of Europe before the Holocaust and subsequently was donated to the Honduran synagogue, "an example of Divine Providence," the favorite of the few dozen sifrei Torah he has fixed during the last decade. "This involves a community project."

His volunteers include several adults who rarely set foot in a synagogue. "One gentleman says he usually stays away from rabbis." Now, says Rabbi Vinas, "we’re learning Torah together."

"The special power of a sefer Torah comes not just from the words but from the materials that go into it," he says. School groups come by to see the Torah. "The power of the JCC is that it’s not a shul," the rabbi adds. "People feel comfortable coming."

In the two months since the scroll arrived at the JCC, the Torah project, supported by a UJA-Federation continuity grant, has attracted community interest. Ita Aber, a Riverdale artist, has volunteered to design a new silk case. The Nathan Strauss Jewish Center, a Bronx synagogue that will close in two years, has donated to the Tegucigalpa synagogue a pair of scrolls that Rabbi Vinas will also fix.

The Greenburgh Hebrew Center in Dobbs Ferry and Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown are collecting funds for the JCC’s Torah Relief Effort, which is paying for restoration costs and supporting the Jewish community in Tegucigalpa. (Contributions can be sent c/o JCC on the Hudson, 371 S. Broadway, Tarrytown, NY 10591.)

"It is a wonderful opportunity for the JCC to engage in an activity for the wider Jewish community," Judy Underberg says.

The Underbergs hope to accompany the scroll on its return to Honduras. So does Rabbi Vinas.

"We’ll have a hanachas sefer Torah [dedication ceremony]. We’ll set up a chupah," he says.

There is no hurry, the rabbi says. "They’re going to rebuild the shul, so we have time."